Prague: In the largest demonstration in the Czech Republic since it won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1989, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Sunday night calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
The police and the interior ministry estimated that by 5pm more than 200,000 people had arrived for the demonstrations, with thousands more still making their way to Letna Park, which sits on a hill high above the banks of the Vltava river and has commanding views of the old town.
Known around the world for its baroque architecture, Gothic churches and famed spires, the Czech capital was a sea of European Union and Czech flags, with parents bringing their children to the place where in 1989, some 750,000 people protested before declaring a general nationwide strike November 27, 1989.
“We want to bring decency and commitment to the public service back to the Czech Republic,” said Magdalena Kascak, 39. “I am not sure they will resign, but it will at least shine light at the public discontent and help energise the society.”
The protests have been building for weeks. Early this month, more than 100,000 people appeared in Prague for a similar demonstration.
At that time, Babis, a billionaire who was elected in part because of his promise to fight corruption, said, “There is no reason for people to protest in the street, because they have a great life.”
The protests have their roots in a scandal that has dogged Babis for a decade and is related to the conglomerate he built, Agrofert. It is the country’s largest employer, with some 34,000 people on the payroll.
He has been accused of misusing subsidies from the European Union in the development of a farm and conference centre known as Stork Nest. In April, the police recommended that he face fraud charges.
The justice minister, Jan Knezinek, resigned the day after the police made their recommendation. He was succeeded by Marie Benesova, who is close to the country’s president, Milos Zeman, an ally of Babis.
While the police can recommend an indictment, only the state’s prosecutor, who is appointed by the justice minister, can file charges.
The first protests soon erupted, with many people believing Babis was perverting the legal system to protect himself.
Meanwhile, an audit by the European Commission, unrelated to the police investigation, that was made public this month found that Babis’ impartiality over the distribution of EU funds — first when he was finance minister and later when he became prime minister — was fundamentally compromised.
His company stood to gain from the subsidies, the audit found, and even though he divorced himself from the sprawling enterprise’s daily operations, he also stood to profit.
Babis said the audit was flawed and vowed to fight the findings.
The mood at the rally Sunday was calm and peaceful, but disgust with the government was overwhelming.
Josef Meisner, an electrician who attended demonstrations in Letna three decades ago when he was 13, returned Sunday. While he did not draw a parallel with the 1989 revolution, he condemned Babis for abusing the democratic system that came after years of struggle and turmoil.
Worse, he said, Babis was acting for his own enrichment.
“He blocks any law that is not favourable to his business interests,” he said.
Speaking earlier this month at the annual Globsec security conference in neighbouring Slovakia, where demonstrations last year led to the prime minister’s resignation, Babis said, “The Czech Republic is not going to change the government because of protests in the street.”
He also lashed out at the Czech news media, saying that “no one should believe their lies” and that he would continue to work to make the Czech Republic “great again.”